2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Preview – A New Generation

Of the new stadiums, Heinz Field is more intimidating than Three Rivers Stadium. Fans are closer to the field without the huge walls. makes for great theater.

Of the new stadiums, Heinz Field is more intimidating than Three Rivers Stadium. Fans are closer to the field without the huge walls. makes for great theater.

Was it just our CEO or did the NFL playoffs just seem strange last year without the Pittsburgh Steelers involved?? Since the hiring of Bill Cowher in 1992, the Steelers have only missed the playoffs 6 times. The 3-4 defense he installed is still there and regime change was seamless when Mike Tomlin succeeded him. They may be the best team in football when it comes to drafting specific talents to fit their schemes, especially on defense. When was the last time this team blew it with a defensive player taken in the draft??

Over the next few seasons this team will have to replace the most successful group of defenders since the original Steel Curtain. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and James Farrior have already moved on. The day will soon come to replace Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, and Casey Hampton as well. Sounds daunting until you realize Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Kevin Greene, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson once played here and were adequately replaced.

The most remarkable aspect of all these transitions is the fact the defense hasn’t had a drop off in production during all this time. In a season where defensive leader Farrior was let go, Palamalu missed 9 games, and Harrison 3, this team still finished #1 in defense overall. Only allowing 275.8 yards per game. So when you see 1st round selection LB Jarvis Jones, or 4th round pick S Shamarko Thomas, you get the feeling these guys will stick and define a new era in Pittsburgh Steeler defensive football.

Is there another Super Bowl trip in Big Ben's future??

Is there another Super Bowl trip in Big Ben’s future??

Quarterback: One thing that was reported this summer was the comment that Ben Roethlisberger wants to finish with more championships than Terry Bradshaw. It looks like that will be the only way he’ll get the respect from a historical standpoint that his play alone hasn’t fostered. Has there been a more under celebrated 3 time Super Bowl starter?? Last year while learning a new offense he finished with 3,265 yards while completing 63.3% (284 of 449) of his passes. He also finished with 26TDs thrown to only 8 interceptions for a career low 1.8% interception rate. What would he have done with a better rushing attack??

Will Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley adjust his offense to take better advantage of Roethlisberger in the vertical game as well?? In some instances, the Steeler passing game was too controlled.  With such a big mobile quarterback, the Steelers should run more waggles and half roll-outs to take advantage of his size. The more they can pass from run formations the better off this passing offense will be. So they definitely need a return effort from their running game. Roethlisberger is entering his 10th year and can take the hits throwing vertically. He’s a team leader and once Haley starts trusting him more to go downfield this offense can push the envelope. Last year the Steelers played it too close to the vest on offense. They need this to return to championship form. Especially with a Super Bowl quarterback in his prime at the helm.

A physical back with quick feet. Bell should be a hit in Pittsburgh.

A physical back with quick feet. Bell should be a hit in Pittsburgh.

Offensive Backfield: Management made a statement in not re-signing Rashard Mendenhall and drafting Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round. He will be given every opportunity to start and his style of play suits what the Steelers want to do. Isaac Redman (410 yards / 3.7 yd avg) and Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards / 4.0 avg) are still in house but are thought of more as reserve talent more than starters.

Another player brought in that could provide dividends on 3rd downs is the signing of LaRod Stephens -Howling, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. He can also contribute on special teams. However Bell, out of Michigan State, fits the physical profile of a Steeler running back. He has patient but quick feet. A lot like Emmitt Smith, he can make moves in space but it’s his timing that sets up his blocks. His inclusion with Stephens-Howling gives this position an upgrade to playoff quality.

This is the season Antonio Brown comes of age.

This is the season Antonio Brown comes of age.

Receivers: Why did the Steelers bring back Plaxico Burress?? Teams aren’t going to be fooled by an old, tall, bad route runner near the goal line. Everyone knows he’s in there for a post corner or fade route only. In the middle of the field he’s not effective and telegraphs an offenses true intentions when they are down close. What they need is a bookend to Antonio Brown who should have his best season in 2013.

The other reason will be the return to more two tight end alignments with the signing of Matt Spaeth.   Pro Bowl Tight End Heath Miller (71 rec. /816 yds / 8 TDs) will combine to be one of the league’s best TE tandems. Miller can be moved away from the line and allow for multiple receiver looks without opponents platooning nickel packages. More room for Brown and himself to operate underneath. This group is average going into camp and if Brown breaks out like we think, they can be a playoff caliber group.

Offensive Line: Curiously this team didn’t draft any linemen yet signed 6 to bring in to camp. Only Mike Golic Jr. was an offensive tackle with the rest being Guards or Centers. They have to commit to the run after allowing 37 sacks last year and had Steeler quarterbacks hit an additional 67 times. We say quarterbacks because they got Ben knocked out of 3 games. Either run the ball more effectively or protect the passer better, the Steelers look to go with the first option. They do look to get younger with the release of G Willie Colon.

This feast or famine approach could come back to haunt them if they fall behind in games or if they don’t get the push to improve in the running game. Last year the Steelers were 26th in rushing with 1,537 yards with a 3.7 yard average. That is not Steelers football! Only 9 teams had more than the 16 negative rushing plays to the strong side in 2012. A detriment to a power rushing team and you can only fool opposing teams passing on 3rd and short so much. Steeler football is sic ’em not slick ’em. They have to get back to pounding on the line of scrimmage and drafted the back to help. Until we see this take fold this group is below average. They should have drafted a blue chip prospect here last April.

Defensive Line: This is an unsung group when it comes to a defensive line in the NFL. The reason the Steelers finished #1 in defense starts with Casey Hampton eating double teams. You cannot move him off the point of attack and behind him linebackers are scraping, gaming, and blitzing. The number one rule to a 3 man line is the Nose Guard has to be able to eat double teams, triple teams and no one has done it better in the last 20 years. Fellow line-mate ends Brett Keisel (46 tackles / 4.5 sacks) and Ziggy Hood (42 tackles /3 sacks) are passing knowledge to third year player Cameron Heyward, Keisel’s heir apparent. They have signed several linemen to come to camp but these four guys are the main reason this line and defense is Super Bowl quality.

Steeler coaches will teach him a little more body lean coming off the corner.

Steeler coaches will teach him a little more body lean coming off the corner.

Linebackers: The heart and soul of the Steelers as an organization are the linebackers. Enter Jarvis Jones. His inclusion provides a two fold plus for Dick Lebeau’s charges. He should be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the freedom he’ll have playiing next to Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. Foote led the team with 113 tackles while gathering 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. However Timmons had 106 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles along with 2 defensive touchdowns. These numbers could be higher but this group plays downhill on the offenses side of the ball forcing teams to punt. No one is better stocked at Inside Linebacker.

There is far too much for teams to focus on once we talk about LaMarr Woodley than to turn their attention to Jones. In the early portion of the season, watch for teams to slide the line or back to chip on Woodley. The Chancellor thinks Jones will burst out of the blocks and have a strong September. At 6’2 245 lbs, he’ll play taller than James Harrison and can redirect passes with those long arms. Another plus that Harrison couldn’t do. Don’t think we’re downplaying the loss of Harrison, but with five to six inches of reach he can knock down passes when he doesn’t get to the quarterback. Lets ask a question: When hasn’t the Steelers linebacking corps been Super Bowl quality?? This should be the AFC’s best group and Woodley repeats 2012, he will be replaced in 2014.

Get ready for another hitter to clobber folks in Heinz Field.

Get ready for another hitter to clobber folks in Heinz Field.

Secondary: The final phase of introducing the next generation of Steeler defenders will come with the development of Shamarko Thomas. At 5’9 217 lbs, running a 4.3 40?? Two things are going to happen.One he is going to be decking receivers left and right or he’ll swoop in for interceptions by the bushel. The only reason he slipped to the 4th round is the belief by many teams the position has been minimized by teams favoring the short passing game. This guy was an All Big East performer and should fit right in with a rough defense. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are back and will be great mentors for him. Everywhere you look on this defense, there is a blue chip player that doesn’t have to produce right away. In future years this will benefit the Steelers greatly.

One issue is the advanced age of Polamalu and Clark at 31 and 34 respectively, they have already missed a combined 13 games in the last 3 seasons. Now that Thomas is on the scene they can get him some valuable playing time if either are lost for a significant amount of time this season. At cornerback, this team has been able to get away with marginal talent. Thanks to the overall front seven’s ability to stop the run, blitz and force quick passes from their opponents, these guys just need to tackle. They rarely have to cover for long or once receivers go inside, the active linebackers clog most of those lanes. However one interception between Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis combined is terrible. They did defense 36 combined passes but now it’s time to take a look at getting younger. They signed DeMarcus Van Dyke and will give a look to 5th round selection Terry Hawthorne out of Illinois. They did bring back William Gay but if you see him, one of these two didn’t develop fully. Because of the cornerbacks, this group is just average. They need to start the transition on the corners as they have everywhere else on this defense.

Crazy Steeler fan's alternate helmet.

Crazy Steeler fan’s alternate helmet.

Overall: The Steelers offensive line has to perform to return this team to the playoffs. Their biggest nemesis in the division this year is the Cincinnati Bengals and their heavy pass rush. Now throw in James Harrison’s assisting with Steeler personnel strengths and weaknesses in their camp and there is more to worry about. Last year the Bengals were 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 52 to begin with. The Ravens improved their rush with the signing of Elvis Dumervil and the Browns brought in hard working Paul Kruger to get after the passer. This team needs to run the ball and maintain leads.

This will be the last season for Polamalu and Ryan Clark as the season will take it’s toll on these two. Expect the team to find out what they have in Shamarko Thomas as the lumps mount up on the aging safety duo. Last year alone they missed 8 games combined and they’re not getting any younger. Jarvis Jones should battle for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as teams gear themselves to stop Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley. Two of the new generation Steelers are in place on defense and Bell provides spark on offense. It won’t come to fruition until a little more help arrives in 2014. This year’s Steeler team will go 9-7 in a transition year.

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Is The 2004 NFL QB Draft Class The Best Ever?

Eli Manning has two rings….were they better than the 1983 class?

With 3 members of the great quarterback class of 1983 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at first glance you might say no. Until you realize the class of 2004 has 4 Super Bowl rings won between Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Not only are they in the prime of their careers but you have to include Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub and Phillip Rivers as well. Many pundits have the Houston Texans as an AFC favorite to make this year’s Super Bowl and Phillip Rivers has made the AFC Championship along with a couple of Pro Bowls. How do they stack against the great classes of the past??

Well for starters this class didn’t have to live up to the expectations of the class of 1999. Remember that group? Donovan McNabb, Duante Culpepper, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cade McNown were the hot quarterbacks anointed to challenge the class of 1983 yet came up woefully short. Couch, Smith, and McNown were out of the league within 5 years. Culpepper had some big seasons culminating with an NFC Championship visit in 2000 and had his best season in 2004 with 4,717 yards and 39 TDs. After that he was a journeyman playing for several teams.

As for Donovan McNabb, he was the face of the Philadelphia Eagles and led them to 4 straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance. He played with distinction for well over a decade and was a Pro Bowl quarterback 6 times including 5 straight years (2000-2004). For his career, he threw for 37,726 yards and 234 touchdowns while crossing the 3,000 yard threshold in 8 different seasons. Yet no Super Bowl victories. The class of ’99 only had 1 Super Bowl appearance.

Which brings us to the hallowed class of 1983. Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, Ken O’Brien, and Tony Eason were the signal callers who were going to dominate pro football for the next 15 years. They did….well kind of. With all of them going to the AFC, the next decade worth of drafts were slanted to pass protecters, specialist linebackers who defensed the pass better than the run along with receivers, and cornerbacks to cover them. The AFC took to the air as their earthbound counterparts in the NFC were rooted in the ground with power running schemes and more stout physical defenses. As the decade wore on each of the class of 83 started making their way to the Super Bowl. One after the other they went down in Super Bowls XIX- XXVIII in 10 straight games. Only after the Denver Broncos built John Elway an NFC team did the class of ’83 finally win two Super Bowls. Four of them reached the Super Bowl and three of them made it to multiple Super Bowls. While Elway, Kelly, and Marino rewrote the record books: Were they better than the ’04 class??

Big Ben has had playoff heroics that are either equal or surpass those of John Elway

The biggest issue the newer quarterbacks face is perception. The media fawned over John Elway being the prototypical quarterback (6’3, blonde hair, golden arm) that he rarely faced detractors until his Super Bowl losses. Sportswriters of the time lauded Marino for his cool in the face of a blitz, and Kelly for his toughness. Roethlisberger, because of a few off field incidents, is rarely thought of in high regard when it comes to writers who romanticize the game’s players. His scrambles and daring play are every bit as good as John Elway’s and has won more games for the Steelers than most can keep count. Where Elway had The Drive (Elway’s 98 yard drive to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game) Roethlisberger led a last second drive culminating with a last second touchdown throw to win Super Bowl XLIII with :42 seconds left. We hardly hear of it talked about in the air of Elway’s drive when Big Ben’s was greater because it won a Super Bowl. Why?? Talk about playoff heroics… What about the 3rd and 19, 58 yard bomb to Antonio Brown with 2:00 left in the 2010 playoff with the Ravens?? It led to the game winning score and another Super Bowl visit. Others in that instance would have played for overtime. Yet where is the coverage of his daring or a nickname for either of these moments??

Did we say last second drives to win Super Bowls?? Well Eli Manning has two. Not only did he take down an undefeated Patriot team in 1 Super Bowl (2007), he proved it wasn’t a fluke with an encore performance in the 46th edition. Where Elway won one conference championship game with a last minute drive on the road, Eli has done that twice now in Green Bay and San Francisco in overtime. He has become the NFL’s all time winningest quarterback in the playoffs with 8 wins away from home, he set the record for road wins in a season with 11. Then what may go down as one of the defining games of his career happened last Sunday. After throwing 3 interceptions early in the game to put his Giants in a hole, Eli comes back with 240 yards passing in the 4th quarter alone in beating Tampa Bay 41-34. The Giants scored 25 points in that final period as Manning threw for 510 yards overall. He came within 45 yards of the all time record of 554 set by Norm Van Brocklin in 1950.

Comparing these two classes is one-sided in the favor of the ’04 group when it comes to Super Bowls. The latter group is 4-1 in the big game where the ’83 group was 2-10. Where John Elway was the winningest quarterback in NFL history at one time, folks are slow to notice Roethlisberger is approaching 100 with a total of 84 right now. To further tilt matters this group is in it’s prime and how many Super Bowl visits are in the near future when we include Matt Schaub and possibly a Phillip Rivers (both are 2-0 to start 2012). As of right now there are 3 busts in Canton from the earlier group but this one is better and hasn’t come close to finishing their run yet. They need to get the respect their elders did concerning their on-field heroics.

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Week 15 Monday Night Football: Pittsburgh Steelers @ San Francisco 49ers

"Did you hear?? Baltimore lost to San Diego last night!"

Well doesn’t this have a good ring to it?? These teams are coming in with a ton of NFL playoff implications tied to this football game. The first is the San Francisco 49ers are trying to catch the Green Bay Packers, for homefield advantage on the NFC side of the ledger. Although they have won their division, they have been caught by the New Orleans Saints who are 1/2 a game up on the 49ers for the #2 seed. In other words, the 49ers need this game in more ways than one. They need it for playoff positioning and also to prove they can stand up to the best AFC teams. They were handled in Balitmore Thanksgiving Night 16-6, and being new to the league’s elite they need to prove to themselves they can beat an established team. The Niners come into this game 10-3 and face the 10-3 Steelers.

The Steelers come into this game without their enforcer in linebacker James Harrison who is serving a one game suspension. However this team had to deal with his missing four games from an orbital bone fracture earlier in the year. With Lawrence Timmons & Larry Foote, the Steelers are able to rotate linebackers to continue playing the same defense and rush the passer along with stopping the run. This year’s edition hasn’t forced the turnovers of previous editions yet comes in with the #1 defense. Thanks to early injuries to this defense, which is one of the eldest in all of football, they are healthy on defense at the right time and they’re rested.

Unsung versatile linebacker Larry Foote

They also have to rally around an injured Ben Roethlisberger who has a high ankle sprain but this is the type of rock ’em sock ’em game the  Steelers thrive in. It may be hard for Roethlisberger to move around and make plays but he plays with grit and has to will his offense down the field. For the season he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for 3,526 yards 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s on pace for another 4,000 yard season and people have to get over the illusion that the Steelers are a running team. Sure they are a running team first, but Ben is what makes this offense go. They say it’s a game time decision but Big Ben, sitting out this game?? Stop, he’ll be under center tonight bank on it. Especially with Baltimore stumbling last night in San Diego, now the Steelers are in control of the AFC North, the second seed in the AFC playoffs or possibly home field throughout.

Yet coming in with the league’s #4 defense is the San Francisco 49ers. Did you know they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown all year?? They are trying to become the first team in league history not to give up a rushing touchdown for the season. Now that is a record. Furthermore did you know that in the Super Bowl era, for every team that didn’t give up a rushing touchdown in the first 10 games, all of which made it to at least the conference championship?? So take a guess who is #1 against the run in the NFL?? Getting the picture??

Underappreciated as the #1 rushing defense in football. Folks will learn of Justin Smith and the rest of the defense. It's more than Patrick Willis.

Frank Gore and Rashard Mendenhall better have on their big boy pads tonight.  Frank Gore “Didn’t he ask to be traded?? Oh that was pre-season!” has 1,054 yards and 6 touchdowns and has to be at his best for San Francisco to win. He currently ranks 6th but should end tonight as the league’s #3 rusher.  Suprisingly Rashard Mendenhall is 24th in the league in rushing with 710 yards yet he has 8 touchdowns. Can Mendenhall and company break the rushing touchdown drought of the Niners?? Well they better get their pad lower than they did on the goal line at home versus Cleveland.

In the end, Big Ben is going to win this game with a few plays out of the pocket. Alex Smith is enjoying a good season but will see ghosts of that Thanksgiving Game as Lamarr Woodley will come off the corner as Terrell Suggs did in that one. The difference is going to be the quarterback… Big Ben will win it where Alex Smith will try to manage it.  You don’t manage against Blitzburgh. Yet the 49ers aren’t battle tested enough to knock off Pittsburgh.

OUR PICK: STEELERS 20-13 OVER 49ERS

2011 Steelers Preview

Welcome to the casual Friday version of the Taylor Blitz Times.  Time to look at what the Steelers have to address as we look into the crystal ball and figure what this team needs to address going into 2011.  While it’s true Pittsburgh has made it to 3 Super Bowls in 5 years they do have a few things to address.   The Steelers have another solid year of being clearly better than all but Baltimore in their division.  The Browns are improving and the Bengals aren’t sure if they are coming or going, especially with the ongoing Carson Palmer saga.  Yet a closer look and there are some positions where the Steelers are showing age and wear.  This can haunt a team that is used to winning close games for a fickle bounce of the ball one way late can turn what would have been a win into a loss.  So lets get started.

Quarterback: Big Ben Roethlisberger, who doesn’t play according to the quarterback ratings system and doesn’t seem to be a polished passer.  He’s not in the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning class right? Thats perception until you look at the actual numbers. In 2010 Roethlisberger threw for 17 TDs and only 5 interceptions and had a passer rating of 97.0.  His TD to interception ratio is as good as any QB in the NFL.  His never give up on a play attitude does lead to some sacks and turnovers but it also leads to breathtaking plays like the 59 yard bomb to rookie Antonio Brown, with 2 minutes to go in the divisional playoff with the Ravens.  His comebacks are more schizophrenic than artistic yet his statistics are starting to show he belongs in the upper echelon of quarterbacks.

Going into his 7th season Ben is clearly in his prime.  In 2009 he threw for over 4,300 yards and 26tds a season after throwing for a career high 32tds in 2007.  Scrambling and making plays has masked a deficient running game a few years back and now a suspect offensive line.  You have to give him credit he’s a winner.  He had an off game early in Super Bowl XLV against the Packers, yet battled back in that one as well.   Still on the upswing…

Offensive Backfield: The Steelers are set for the forseeable future with Mendenhall.  A physical runner with quick, patient feet.  No running back in football defines his team with his style of play.  Although he’s had back to back 1,100 yard seasons, 1,273 in 2010, and he’s done so behind a patchwork offensive line  which needs to be improved.  Could challenge for a rushing title behind a better line. Entering his 4th season, he’s proven durable and may have his best season.  He wants to make good after his 4th quarter Super Bowl fumble and you know he’s living with it this entire off-season.  Look for him to come into 2011 with a serious chip on his shoulder.  Mewelde Moore is a capable backup and can fill in for Mendenhall in spells yet is better as a back on screens and draws than off tackle plays.   A little of Mendenhall has rubbed off on Moore who has run with more authority since Rashard’s arrival.

Offensive Line: A beleaguered group did hit a good note with the drafting of center Maurkice Pouncey.  He can anchor the Steelers line for many years to come.  Where there are issues is when you move out to Tackle.  Flozell Adams was only a stop gap measure for the injuries to both Willie Colon and Max Starks.  The Ravens Terrell Suggs had 3 sacks against this line in the divisional playoff also.  When healthy, Starks has problems with quicker pass rushing ends and linebackers anyway.  Look to the Steelers to draft some help here.

Contrary to popular belief, this line doesn’t get as much push in the running game as it seems.  They have benefited from Mendenhall breaking tackles and making them look better than they have played.  Much like Roethlisberger’s scrambles have helped their sack numbers.  In the Super Bowl you could see this when Mendenhall was hit in the backfield 6 times on rushing plays including the critical 4th quarter fumble that sealed the Steelers fate.  More and more drives depend on Ben making a play to keep drives alive than the Steelers powering the ball down opponents throats.  That deficiency clearly comes from this line not getting much push.   Need a serious upgrade and should use 2 draft picks here.

Receivers: After the loss of Santonio Holmes, I for one, thought this would be a weakness that would come back to haunt the Steelers.  The emergence of Mike Wallace, who was a Pro Bowl snub, more than made up for Holmes departure.  Wallace’s performance?  60 receptions for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns with a whopping 21 yards per reception and no Pro Bowl? Come on man!  This deep, threat entering his third year, played better than expected and compliments Big Ben’s scrambling to put fear in rival defenses and will only get better.  Rookie Antonio Brown started to emerge as the playoffs neared and should replace Randle El.  He showed explosive speed as well and was a jolt to the Steelers special teams and will come into year 2 brimming with confidence.

Hines Ward has really slowed, he looked like a tight end through much of last year.  He’s been a durable Hall of Fame receiver who may retire before we get to the 2011 season. The Steelers will need to develop a possession receiver or move to more 2 tight ends if Ward doesn’t come back.  If he does look to teams running man under coverage and smothering him on underneath routes because he can’t get deep.  He may need to be platooned and come out in certain situations. He’s slowed too much.  At tight end Matt Spaeth and Heath Miller are the best one – two punch in football. Each block and are sure handed underneath receivers and bail Ben out on those 3rd and 4 scrambles.   At receiver, the Steelers are really in good shape.

Defensive Line: Although this team was one of history’s most stout defensive fronts, this team can become old and give up yards in a hurry like the Steel Curtain of the 70’s did in 1980.  DE Aaron Smith enters his 13th year along with fellow DE Brett Keisel going into his 10th.  At NT, you have Casey Hampton entering his 11th season while his backup Chris Hoke is going into his 10th…Yikes!! They could be on the verge of a defensive collapse. They really had no affect in Super Bowl XLV.  They did draft Ziggy Hood who has been a little more consistent as of late but 2011 could be the last hurrah with fingers crossed that 2010 wasn’t for this group.  Face it from halftime of the AFC Championship game against the New York Jets on through the Super Bowl, this group was non existent.  The Packers and Jets ran when they wanted to.  Watchout…seriously

Linebackers: Don’t look now but the Steelers are getting a little long in the tooth at inside linebacker also.  James Farrior has quietly been one of football’s best ILBs for the last six years.  He’s been a consumate pro since he came over from the NY Jets yet he’s entering his 15th season.  The Steelers brought back Larry Foote who played well last year and he’s entering his 10th season while they’re backup Keyaron Fox is entering his 8th.  Fox also had a dumb personal foul call on the kickoff before the Steelers final drive that pushed them back to a point of desperation in the Super Bowl.  The Steelers need to draft here to prepare for the enevitable.

At outside linebacker this team couldn’t be more set with former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.  The best set of outside linebackers in football bar none.  Even if one of them goes down, the Steelers have Lawrence Timmons out of Florida State, whom they play out of position as a nickel inside linebacker just to get him on the field.  Harrison and Woodley are stout against the run and rush the passer as well as any set of linebackers in history.  Their disappearance in Super Bowl XLV was puzzling….Woodley, Farrior, and Harrison combined for only 7 tackles in that football game.  The Packers handled this team at the line of scrimmage and no one was used to that.  Need to draft some inside linebacker help….

Secondary: The word for today kids is exposure.  LOL  Ike Taylor and William Gay were struggling to chase down Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson in the Super Bowl.  Do you realize had Jordy held onto the 3 passes he dropped he would have broken Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl receiving record for yardage?  This bunch got scorched once the pass rush was stymied.  Need legitimate help here. Taylor is a free agent and may leave, barring the team that tries to sign him not look at the Super Bowl footage, yet I digress.  a stat was floating around that this was the 22nd best defensive backfield as a group yet it was the corners who were the Achilles heal.  Help needed immediately

For the safeties are the best in football as a tandem in NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark out of LSU.  However how long can these two play at such a high level?  Polamalu is going into year 9 and Clark is going into year 10 and the pounding is taking its toll on Troy who has missed 5 games in the last two seasons due to injury.  He rushed to come back and wasn’t the same player and you saw he couldn’t get to the corner to stop Aaron Rodgers throws over the corner.  Troy just couldn’t get there.  When healthy he is the most instinctive defensive players in the NFL and will go to the Hall of Fame.  Has his physical style of play rendered his body to the point he can’t complete a full season anymore?? Hmmm??

Draft, draft, draft!!  There are some needs everywhere from both the offensive and defensive lines, the inside linebacker position and cornerback. Age can really hit this team all at once.  Although its not likely they just have to prepare.  This is that last season where they are clearly better than the rest of the division.  They are about to transition into being more of an offensive football team than that of a defensive one.   The defense will need to be rebuilt in 2012. The Steelers have to get younger.

2011 Packers Preview

Alright we had a break after a breath taking Super Bowl where we watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in the 45th edition.  So now we turn our attention to the upcoming football season.  We want to avoid the labor talks because we’ll all be inundated with that talk through television outlets and we want to keep the talk on pro football.  Where do we begin?  How about where we left off?  Going into 2011, we watched the Green Bay Packer’s 2nd string win the Super Bowl.  If we were to address issues with the defending champion where would you start.  Mark Murphy and Ted Thompson have to be grinning from ear to ear.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers joined the pantheon of quarterbacks that are the vanguard of future expected excellence at the quarterback position.  Accurate, mobile, and fearless he stands to wrest the mantle of NFL’s best QB from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with an excellent 2011.  Think about it.  Of the 3 Super Bowl seasons Tom Brady had the best statistically was 2004, where he threw for 3,690 yards 28TDs, and 14 interceptions.  Last year despite missing 2 games with injury, Rodgers threw for 3,922 yards 28 TDs and only 11 interceptions for the Packers.  More importantly he didn’t have Corey Dillon run for 1,635 like Brady had either.  Rodgers had to manufacture yardage while the Packers ground game struggled to replace Ryan Grant.

Mobile, accurate, and fearless he is the first quarterback since Brady that we knew he had the better part of a decade left to shape his career after a Super Bowl triumph.  Barring injury, Rodgers would have thrown for 4,000 yards for a third consecutive season and second straight with more than 30TDs.  With Brady and Manning going into their “grey” years this is one of the quarterbacks that will own this decade.  Matt Flynn showed in the 24-21 loss to the Patriots he can move the football if Rodgers has some time away from the field.  As for Rodgers (shaking my head) Clearly on the rise…

Offensive Backfield: How can this team not get stronger with a return of a healthy Ryan Grant?  His 3,412 yards on 782 carries over the last three years is a lofty 4.36 yards per carry. Back to back 1,200 yard rushing seasons have shown that he can be a workhorse.  With his injury coming early in the season he saved his body from wear and tear and should be fresh coming into the new year.  James Starks and Brandon Jackson are serviceable.  I see the Packers exploiting Starks to spell Grant in the upcoming year.  He didn’t fumble in the playoffs as a rookie and had patient feet as a runner.  Jackson will be relegated to special teams since Grant is a good receiver out of the backfield.  Starks came into his own going into the playoffs and to play that well with the stakes at their highest, his confidence should be soaring coming into the new year.

Packers have a folk hero in John Kuhn whom fans relate to. His emergence along with Boise State product Korey Hall give Green Bay power backs to move the pile on 3rd and 1 or goalline offense.  However, both Kuhn and Hall have to get their noses dirty as blockers and each do so willingly.  The fullbacks will lose carries to Starks.   Look for the Packers to use Starks and his big body behind either Kuhn or Hall on most short yardage situations and save Grant from heavy pounding.  With all defensive eyes on Rodgers this could be quietly the best backfield in Packers history with a combination 1200 yard season by Grant and a 600-700 yard season by Starks. This of course barring injury.

Offensive Line: Although they tied for 10th in the NFL for most sacks allowed with 38, this group performed well in the playoffs.  They stymied the feared Steelers pass rush in Super Bowl XLV.  However this line did give up 15 sacks over the final 6 games of the regular season.  They must protect Aaron Rodgers better.  Rodgers made them look better with well timed escapes from the pocket that kept the sack totals lower than what they could have been.  Rookie RT Bryan Bulaga, 3rd year RG Josh Sitton, and center Scott Wells in his 7th season, simply need to get more push off the ball when rushing .  They tied for 8th with negative rushing plays running to the strong side with 17 during the regular season.  Again this is where they can improve and a bigger back in Starks may be the route they take.

On the left side is LT Chad Clifton, and another Boise State product in Daryn Colledge at left guard.  On the left side of the line the Packers were 24th with negative  rushing plays with only13.  A pretty good number for a team that runs a lot of draws and screens to their left.  Chad Clifton from time to time looks like he’s slowing down and then comes up with a big performance.  However facing the likes of Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, and the Justin Tuck’s of the conference can wear him down.  The Packers may look to groom his replacement this year now they have the luxury of drafting for want and not need.  With Rodgers suffering two concussions last year, its imperative they protect him by getting those precious first downs rushing right (strong side) and protecting Rodgers from the weak side. Injured Tackle Mark Tauscher is getting a little older also and probably will be replaced permanently by Bulaga. Right now they are so set with the line with a good mixture of youth and age.

Receivers: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, an James Jones are deadly as a set of receivers.  Throw in a Jermichael Finley at TE with a mature Rodgers and this team can threaten some all time NFL offensive numbers.  Jordy Nelson’s growth and Super Bowl performance of 9 catches for 140 yards and a TD could spell the end of Donald Driver as a go to guy.  Not only did he not get down on himself during the Super Bowl after dropping several passes he proved to be more than an intermediate possession receiver.  He got deep, he made catch and run plays on digs or deep in routes and showed the burst that the fading Driver once did.  Driver is slowing down and a draft pick could be spent here.  James Jones had several key drops during the playoffs and the Packers aren’t sure which #89 is going to catch the ball.  Will it be the #89 that climbed the ladder for a spectacular leaping TD against the Atlanta Falcons, or the streaking #89 who dropped a sure TD in Philadelphia during the wildcard as well as the near TD that could have put Super Bowl XLV out of reach with a second 18 point lead.  Could see some change at receiver this year but at least two receivers two years from now.

Greg Jennings is an ultimate pro and team player.  Please pay attention this is a great player in the prime of his career. Entering his sixth season, this is a receiver who makes big play after big play when the Packers need it.  He’s had 3 straight 1,000 yard season with 2 back to back over 1,200 yards.  The last two years he has had touchdown longs of 83 yards and has caught at least 6 passes over 40 yards over the last three years.  Go back to the Super Bowl when Pittsburgh had swung the momentum, who came through with a 31 yard catch to turn the tide back to the Pack??  On third down to boot!!  He remains injury free he will go by many of Sterling Sharpe’s numbers. He’s not better than Sterling, he……I digress.  Jennings is going to be making music with Rodgers for years to come gang.

Defensive Line: Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji are decent at the point of attack but could be better anchors in keeping offensive lineman off of the linebackers. A little more push against the passing pocket could make a good defens a great one. In fact the key play that turned Super Bowl XLV was when backup Howard Green hit Roethlisberger which force the interception by Nick Collins and a 14-0 lead. Cullen Jenkins is a solid DE.  I could see a draft pick being used here as well.  The Packers could use a more impact player at the DE position.  Raji is a keeper but he does need to provide a little more push when rushing the passer.

Linebackers: Did the mantle of greatness leave the Steelers linebackers and thrust onto this team’s set?  Think thats overstated?  I watched James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and James Farrior combine for 4 tackles in the Super Bowl when Clay Matthews out did that hmself and forced a crucial 4th down fumble.  Clay Matthews came in 2nd in the voting for NFL Defensive MVP yet did get many votes to be Super Bowl MVP.  He,  A.J. Hawk, and their hair were the two starters who remained injury free and were the playmakers among the front seven.  Hawk became the linebacker the Packer’s brass envisioned when they drafted him from Ohio St.

I still am scratching my head thinking “They won the Super Bowl without Brady Poppinga and Nick Barnett?”  To me, Poppinga had been the most complete LB before his injury and Barnett its soul.  Matthews has taken that mantle from them both.  As a unit this team could be frightening and their depth has to be considered a strength now that Zomba #58, Desmond Bishop #55 played admirably throughout the playoffs.  Throw in Brandon Chillar and I’m seeing a linebacking corps without a weakness.  Against the run, pass, rushing the QB, show me where they are deficient?  I’ll wait…

Clay Matthews is some kind of beast.  I thought his father was great, yikes.  This is going to be one of the faces of the NFL as Ray Lewis’ fades out with retirement.  The Packers should pull a coup and draft Casey Matthews of Oregon, yes his brother, just to confuse teams with the name and the hair when preparing for them.  LOL  In all seriousness being coached by Kevin Greene who is in tune with his young protege’, who told him in the Super Bowl that it was time for him to make a play.  Next play he forced the Mendenhall fumble.  We’re watching the beginnings of perhaps a Hall of Fame career and he did get my Super Bowl MVP vote for that fumble.  Hey, I like linebackers.

Secondary: Charles Woodson, the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year had just as good a year in 2010.  The emergence of Sam Shields (from the U) allowed him to blitz from the nickel back  spot just as Dom Capers did with Rod Woodson some 15 years ago in Blitzburgh. Sam Shields as a rookie got better as the season wore on and capped his season with two timely interceptions in the NFC Championship Game v. Chicago.  Did I say two interceptions in a playoff game?  Well Tramon Williams #38 performed that feat in the divisonal round and put that game against the Falcons out of reach with a pick six of Matt Ryan on the last play of the second quarter.  Did I say intercepti0n for a TD?  Well isn’t that what Nick Collins did in Super Bowl XLV to put that game out of reach?  I know it was only 14-0, but no team has ever come from a 10-0 deficit to win a Super Bowl, so that play was that big.  This is a cornerback threesome that is headed to a great 2011.  Nick Collins and Atari Bigby are the NFC’s best set of safetys.  Please show me what this secondary can’t do.  Support the run, defend the deep ball, blitz the quarterback…very little holes.

This is a team that will draft for want more than need.  They almost have a free agency type of impact just coming off injured reserve.  Aside from a few spots on the defensive line and possibly the offensive line this team damn near doesn’t need to even attend the NFL Draft.  They can address future needs at receiver also.  Right now Coach McCarthy, Mark Murphy and Ted Thompson are toasting somewhere with grins from ear to ear.  The Packers are set for a five year run at the top of the NFL easily.

Packers 13th NFL Championship: Super Bowl XLV Recap

Wow!!  You can’t say enough great things about this Green Bay Packers team as champions.  In 1996 they arrived with all their big guns in Favre, Reggie White, and company.  Where this team had 16 men on injured reserve and lost leaders WR Donald Driver and CB Charles Woodson for much of the game.  Yet the constant was Aaron Rodgers who kept firing amidst a receiving corp that dropped a few.  When it counted Jordy Nelson and James Jones made up for earlier drops with critical catches in the fourth quarter on the final scoring drive.  They indeed brought the Lombardi Trophy home in a unique way and vanquished an accomplished opponent.  Lets take a look at things.

What was a strength of the Steelers would be the ability to run the ball with Rashard Mendenhall.  At times it seemed like the Steelers got away from their running game but a closer look and you saw that the Packers were successful against the run.  Aside from 17 and 15 yard gains, Mendenhall had 12 carries for 31 yards (2.8yd avg) and on several plays he had to break tackles in the backfield to gain positive yardage.  Evidenced by the shot he took in the 4th quarter from Clay Matthews which forced the 3rd and final Steeler turnover.

What was the defining storyline of this Super Bowl for me was for all the Steel Curtain talk, the Packers were outhitting the Steelers from the beginning of the game.  They tackled crisper and with more conviction. We never heard NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu’s name called for any plays of significance and former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison’s until a fourth quarter sack to give Pittsburgh a fighting chance.  Green Bay had problems protecting Rodgers all year yet seemed to keep the Steelers blitz at bay for much of the game.  Pittsburgh cornerbacks, a liability all year, were completely undressed before the nation.  Had the Packer receivers not dropped 6 passes the game would have been a blowout.

In fact had James Jones not dropped that skinny post where he was inside William Gay and even with Troy Polamalu, he would have been off to the races and the score would have swelled to 28-10.  It was the mid point of the 3rd quarter and another 18 point lead would have been too much to overcome.

Actually that point was when Nick Collins picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter, returning it for a 37 yard TD for a 14-0 lead.  No team had ever come back from a 10-0 deficit to win a Super Bowl game. (Redskins in XXII)  The Steeler gave it a valiant effort but could not overcome their mistakes and penalties.

Roethlisberger had a poor game, no other way to say it.  He did have a few good throws, the fourth quarter TD throw to Mike Wallace was a thing of beauty.  He was off for much of the night.  His throws were high and they seemed confused on that last drive in just lining up. Yes the Packers had good coverage but Roethlisberger detractors would cite his holding onto the ball too long with the Nick Collins interception.  The second interception was a poor decision also.  Yes the receiver needs to fight for the ball but he was clearly double covered.  When the Steelers defense gave Ben the ball back, on social media, the countenance that he was in position to win it again was echoed loudly.  Then Pittsburgh looked confused lining up after a terrible penalty by Keyaron Fox for a personal foul that backed the Steelers up.  Then three poor throws and it was over.

This is about the Green Bay Packers winning this Super Bowl, not the Steelers losing it.  Green Bay forced every Steeler mistake and only gave up a first half TD when two of their top three cornerbacks Woodson and Sam Shields left injured on consecutive plays right before.  Aaron Rodgers MVP performance easily places him in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL.  He lit Pittsburgh up finding Greg Jennings for two TDs and making a Super Bowl hero of Jordy Nelson, who caught 9 for 140 yards and a touchdown.  His stats on the day 24 of 39 for 309 yards, 3TDs & no interceptions.  If you factor in the dropped passes his stats would have been staggering.

There was a time during the 3rd quarter, after the James Jones drop, where Rodgers played with nervous feet and was off for two series.

When the Steelers trimmed the lead to 28-25 in the 4th quarter, Rodgers made the play of the game with his throw to Greg Jennings for 31 yards which reversed the momentum.  He drove the Packers to a field goal for the final score of 31-25 and the milking of the clock left the Steelers with just 2:07 for a final drive.  Rodgers was the MVP of this game upon further review however he did have some help.  James Starks did run for 52 yards on 11 carries that kept the Steelers off balance.  Clay Matthews, AJ Hawk and Nick Collins picked up the defensive slack and stopped Roethlisberger when it counted.

The Lombardi Trophy returns to Title Town…Aaron Rodgers enters the realm of the league’s best quarterback.  With 16 players on injured reserve, I don’t see teams picking them apart in free agency. The Green Bay Packers just won the Super Bowl with a second string football team!!  How can they not be the pick to win next year’s Super Bowl??  There will be time to answer that…for now congratulations Green Bay Packers 2010 World Champions.